Matchup, p.26
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       MatchUp, p.26
 

           Lee Child

  “Yeah? You think he shot her?”

  “I don’t know about that.” She looked at him primly. “But that man ran right through town in nothing but his underpants. Now, you tell me, isn’t that some kind of crime?”

  “Some kind,” Joe agreed, and then he and Perry left and walked out into the cold. A few stray snowflakes were falling now.

  “So we head for the closest Cleveland?” Perry asked.

  Joe caught one of the snowflakes in his palm, watching it melt, and thought again that he would like to have rented a four-wheel drive. He didn’t know what the all-time record storm was in Georgia, but it didn’t sound encouraging.

  “We could do that,” he said. “Or could take advantage of a little time in town without a local deputy at our sides.”

  “I vote for the latter,” Perry said. “I don’t know what in the hell brought Antonio to a place like this, but my guess is, he stuck out once he arrived. People are likely to remember him.”

  “Agreed.”

  They didn’t have to go far to find their first eyewitness, and they didn’t have to interview her long to determine that she wasn’t an eyewitness at all, but since she’d heard all about the shooting from someone who had talked to someone else who had probably seen it, she basically felt like she had herself, you know?

  Pritchard assured her that of course he understood this, but all the same they’d like to talk to someone who actually had seen things. Police protocol and all that. It was a bitch that they couldn’t just take her word for it, but, you know, it was the law.

  “Ain’t nobody going to say a single word different,” she said with a pout. “He ran out of that motel in his underpants, and then came the shooting. He told the police she was trying to steal his car, but it wasn’t even his car, so you tell me whether he’s guilty or not? Answers itself. And doesn’t matter if I saw or heard it, all of that’s gospel, mister.”

  “It sounds authentic,” Joe agreed, and then they thanked her and crossed the street to where she’d indicated the shooting had happened, an alley that angled downhill, behind the hotels. Outside of a hotel called the Linderhof, a guy wearing a long denim jacket that flapped around his legs like a duster was spreading snowmelt on the steps and smoking a cigarette. Maintenance man, probably.

  “Want to see whether he, too, has heard the gospel?” Perry asked.

  “I expect it spreads fast around here, but it might have some variations,” Joe said. “We might as well hear them all.”

  They went up and badged him and he looked at them sourly while he smoked the cigarette.

  “Cleveland, you say?”

  “Cleveland, Ohio, yes.”

  “You interested in the black fella? I don’t say that ’cause he was black. I say that ’cause he drove the car in.”

  “The car where Nora was shot?” Perry asked.

  “That’s the one. Sweet car. Older Mustang, maybe early ’70s. Nah, that ain’t right, not with those taillights. Late ’60s.” He took a long drag and then repeated, “Sweet car.”

  “Where was it impounded?” Joe asked.

  “It wasn’t. They just left it right where it was. There’s police tape on it. I assume it’s likely locked, too.”

  Perry glanced at Joe, clearly impressed by this police work, and said, “Was there anybody working here who might have had a view of what happened this morning?”

  “Nope.” Another puff on the cigarette, then, “I keep meaning to watch the tapes and see if there’s anything useful on them. But, hell, with this storm, the manager keeps busting my balls about getting ice-melt down.”

  “You’ve got security cameras here?”

  “Sure. A couple pointed right at the alley. I figure they might be of some use.”

  “I figure you’re right,” Joe said. “Let’s take a look.”

  The security footage that hadn’t been reviewed or even requested by the three-man Helen Police Department, currently occupied with plans for snowplow routes, offered more than a view of the car.

  It showed the shooting.

  “I’ll be damned,” the maintenance man said. “I wasn’t expecting that.”

  Joe was starting to get a headache. He wondered how many homicides had been investigated in this town in the past century. Whatever the total was, it had to be matched exactly by the number of cold cases.

  “Probably going to want to pass this along to the guy they’ve got in jail,” Perry said as they watched the grainy-but-indisputable image of Antonio Childers opening fire on Nora Simpson. “It seems potentially useful to the defense team, what with the video of someone else doing the killing and all.”

  “How about the girl, though?” Joe said. “She’s driving like she’s expecting someone. Cruising slow through that alley. But she sure as hell wasn’t expecting Antonio. She’s cruising, and he’s running. She seems surprised by him. If she just stole his car, that doesn’t jibe.”

  “Remember what the girl who was spreading the gospel told us,” Perry said. “The cop they locked up said Nora Simpson stole his car, but that he was lying about that, because—”

  “It wasn’t his car,” Joe finished. “Right. Could be some of Detective Tolliver’s testimony had been bent around the edges by the time it got to her. So let’s say Nora sleeps with him, and then she steals a car. Problem is, it’s Antonio’s car. All fine. But how in the hell does she start it?”

  “Hot-wire, maybe?”

  “If she’s hot-wiring cars, she doesn’t need to steal keys.”

  “We need to chat with Detective Tolliver,” Perry said. “I’d rather hear his version of things first. And alert him to the presence of this video. Seems like the kind thing to do, before they send him to the electric chair.”

  “Hang on,” Joe said. “Can you go back?”

  He had been focused on the shooting the first time through, but now as they watched it again he’d seen that just after Antonio Childers left the frame and just before the guy in one shoe and his boxer shorts arrived, there had been a blur of motion that looked like another vehicle pulling in. Pulling in too close to the scene not to have been part of it.

  The maintenance man rewound and played it again. Joe put his finger on the corner of the screen. “Right there, Lincoln. You got better eyes than me, what’s the make on that truck?”

  Perry leaned forward and squinted. “F-150, I’d say. It’s in and out awfully fast, but we can grab a still image and blow that up. Looks like an older Ford, though. Exhaust is custom. They don’t have those big dual pipes coming out of the factory.”

  “Hell,” the maintenance man said. “That’s Paulson’s truck.”

  Joe said, “You know who owns that thing?”

  “Pretty sure. Like this fella said, those pipes stand out. Double Simpson put those growlers on. I remember that, because people said it should have been a, what do you call it? Noise ordinance violation, I think. But since it was Paulson’s truck, and he wasn’t likely to give himself a ticket, who the fuck cared how loud it was, right?”

  They both stared at him.

  Lincoln Perry spoke slowly, as if he had to use a second language with this guy. “That’s a police officer’s truck?”

  “Sure it is. Matter of fact, it is that police officer’s truck.” He pointed at the screen where the surveillance footage was still running, and a tall, skinny, uniformed officer had a gun pointed at the guy in his underwear. Other than the gun and the badge he might’ve been mistaken for a telephone pole. He would’ve been the butt of the joke even in a movie. Despite his considerable height, he didn’t look old enough to shave and probably had needed to add holes to his duty belt to cinch it up tight enough to hold the weight of the gun without his pants falling off his ass.

  Joe said, “So Paulson’s truck was in motion, but Paulson wasn’t driving it. Who do you think was, mister?”

  “How in the hell do I know?”

  “Because you’re batting pretty well already,” Joe said. “So if you don’t mind, keep swi
nging.”

  “I don’t know. Paulson doesn’t have a wife or a girl, lives by himself. I got no idea who’d be driving his car at the ass-crack of dawn while he’s on duty.”

  “What about the guy you mentioned earlier, the one you said customized the exhaust on that Ford?” Perry asked. “Said his name was Double?”

  “His full name is Thomas, I guess, but nobody around here has called him anything but Double since he was a kid. Not sure why, exactly. I think it’s because whatever trouble you had in your life before he showed up, it doubled on you the moment he got there, you know? Matter of fact, I’ve heard it said it was his first-grade teacher who started that nickname. You know a kid is a problem when a teacher tags him like that.”

  Joe said, “Does Thomas, or Double, or whatever the hell he’s known by, move drugs?”

  “Probably.”

  “Coke?”

  “I don’t know. That boy walks down the sidewalk and I cross the street, right? I ain’t exactly in his inner circle. But it surely wouldn’t surprise me.” The maintenance man grew reflective. “Matter of fact, I recall one story about him. Highway patrol stopped him somewhere north of Valdosta, and he was running something, I think maybe it was coke but I can’t say for sure. Anyhow, between the time they ran his license and the time they made him get out of his car, he keistered it. The car search came up empty and they let him go with just a ticket for the expired plates.”

  “Keistered it,” Perry echoed.

  “It’s when you shove the drugs right up your asshole.”

  Perry lifted a hand to ward off any further imagery. “I followed the mechanics, thanks. I was just unfamiliar with the term. I’ll file that one away, though. So he does have a drug history, and he’s close with the local police, particularly the officer who was first on the scene. Correct?”

  “I wouldn’t argue that. He runs a chop shop, everybody knows that, and Paulson surely does, but he hasn’t done anything about it. In exchange, Paulson got a thousand-dollar set of pipes put on his truck, and a pretty bitchin’ grill that you can’t see in the video. It doesn’t match the rest of the truck, but still, it looks tough.” He said it with admiration and envy, and Joe cut in to bring his mind away from the truck and back to the murder scene.

  “What are the odds this guy would have given Antonio Childers, that’s the shooter’s name, the black guy from out of town, a ride away from that scene?”

  “Pretty slim, I’d think. Because he’s Nora’s brother.”

  There was a pregnant silence, and then Joe said, “The guy who worked on that truck was the victim’s brother?”

  “That’s what I said.”

  “How many people live in this town?” Perry asked. “Five?”

  “Just over three hundred.”

  The video was still running.

  On the screen, Paulson and another officer, one who appeared to hold rank over him, were searching the Mustang and cuffing the guy in the one shoe, Detective Jeffrey Tolliver of Birmingham, Alabama. Every now and then Paulson would glance sideways, but his gun never traveled with him. Could be that he was checking to make sure there was no other threat in the area. Could be that he was checking to make sure his truck was long since out of sight.

  “Somebody got Childers away from that scene in a hurry,” Joe said. “But maybe we’re looking at it backwards. We can’t see what happened. The truck comes and goes, and Antonio comes and goes. Maybe with a friend. But maybe not.”

  The maintenance man had that reflective gaze going again. “You know, that’s not a bad point.”

  Joe had never felt less validated by a positive review of his police work, but he pressed it. “Supposing that girl, Nora, was intending to steal the car, then her brother is the likely recipient, right? You said he runs a chop shop. So he’d be the guy who takes over once she’s snagged the car.”

  The maintenance man nodded.

  “Let’s imagine her brother is waiting on her and sees what happens. Watches Antonio shoot his sister in the stomach. He’s not just driving away then, is he? A guy like you described, he’d be all over the screen right now, he’d have killed Antonio, shot him where he stood, or at least stayed with his sister and waited for the cops.”

  That drew a frown and a slow, thoughtful shake of the head. “I can’t say I agree with that, no.”

  “This guy you told us about, the hell-raiser, you think he’d just let it go? Watch his sister be killed and then clear out?”

  “Oh, no. That’s not what I meant, at all. I was just thinking. Old Double, if he did see all that? He’d have wanted to take some time on your boy, there, what’s his name, Antonio? Double wouldn’t have let that end easy for him. Not after what he did to Nora.”

  For a moment they were all quiet, watching Paulson arrest Tolliver on the screen, and listening to the rattling of snow and ice off the window. Then Perry said, “Let’s have a look around that car, Joe. Maybe there are more cameras, more angles.”

  Joe nodded, but he didn’t turn away from the screen.

  He was watching Nora Simpson’s blood spread out over the pavement.

  Double wouldn’t have let that end easy for him, the maintenance man had said.

  And he nearly smiled.

  Antonio might have made one hell of a mistake leaving Cleveland for Georgia.

  These crackers might not be all that easy to handle.

  3:06 P.M.

  JEFFREY PACED AROUND THE TINY holding cell in his underwear and T-shirt. He was still wearing one shoe and one sock. It was the only control he could assert over his person.

  Thanks to his hangover, he had slept some, but now he was fully awake and fully freaking out. Claustrophobia had never been an issue for him until now. There wasn’t enough saliva in his mouth. His heart was vibrating like a tuning fork. He was sweating profusely despite the cold that whipped past the single-paned, barred window high up in his cell.

  Ten hours ago he had asked the Helen chief of police to call sheriff Hoss Hollister in Sylacauga so that Hoss could vouch for him. He knew that ten hours had passed because there was a giant clock on the wall opposite his cell, mounted over the empty desk that held a telephone, a fax machine, and a computer the size of a dog’s coffin—corgi, not malamute—with a giant monitor on top of it. For the last ten hours, he’d listened to the tick-tick-tick of the clock, the second hand passing for something like Chinese water torture.

  Occasionally, he heard voices in the next room, but nobody entered the holding space or sat behind the desk or checked on his welfare. Every once in a while the stainless steel toilet/sink inside his cell would gurgle, or his stomach would grumble, but other than the clock, those were the only sounds.

  The phone never rang.

  The computer wasn’t even turned on.

  He sat down on the narrow metal bed with no mattress, pillow, or blanket. They’d even taken the string out of his one tennis shoe. He clasped his hands between his knees, not praying so much as begging his brain to start working. There was a dead woman. Nora. Someone had killed her. She deserved justice. Some kind of acknowledgment that her life had mattered more than the last few seconds at the end.

  Flashes of memories kept coming back to him.

  The bartender had poured a little more generously when Nora had shown up. The room she’d taken him to was freshly cleaned, no toiletries or suitcase to indicate a guest was staying there.

  What were these called?

  Clues?

  It was a scam, but then the scam had gone horribly wrong.

  Nora had stayed the night. He wanted to think that was because he was damn good in bed, and not because she’d drunk too much and he’d not drunk enough. She was obviously a grab-and-dash kind of woman. Get the wallet, get the keys, go to the alley, and meet up with whoever was going to take the car for chopping.

  But she’d stolen the wrong car.

  Then there was the old blue pickup. The two shapes in the cab. The black guy in the Cleveland Indians baseball cap.
>
  His head pounded out each memory like a chisel on a stone tablet.

  He’d provided the Helen chief of police with Hoss’s home phone number because he’d been close to the lawman his entire life. Hoss was the reason he became a cop. The guy had been a surrogate father, keeping him out of trouble, providing a nudge or a kick in the ass when needed. And Hoss would be a hell of a lot nicer about this current misunderstanding than his lieutenant back in Alabama, who would probably fax over a termination of employment letter the minute he hung up the phone.

  But if the Helen chief had talked to Hoss, if he understood that Jeffrey was not, in fact, a murdering, coke-dealing, drug-running Yankee asshole from Cleveland, but an honest,
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